LOG LINE: In the early 1980s a young artist with a fatal medical condition moves to the shadow world of New York City’s Lower East Side, intent on covering his face with tattoos in defiance of the ban against tattooing then in place, and in so doing transforms himself into a pioneer of American sideshow performance as the Illustrated Man.
SUMMARY: TATTOO MIKE is about a boy that runs away to join the circus. It is a deep dive character study into the life of visual and performance artist Michael Wilson exploring his drive to define and assert his individuality in a world that bucked against the extremity of his self created physical appearance, a conviction to a singular creative vision, and his marriage to a life of art.
Preceding Michael’s arrival to New York by two decades, tattooing in the mid-twentieth century was a bustling trade. Garishly colored marquee lights flashing across darkened streets in Times Square, the romance of drunks yelling and fighting on the sidewalk, poetry in the roar of passing traffic rattling shop windows of tattooists working on local toughs and visiting sailors until 4 am, the city was a vision from a George Bellows painting. At the end of the 50’s, a rumor had started that city officials were coming around for shop inspections. Sighting sanitary conditions as a source for spreading hepatitis, the Health Department closed tattoo businesses on the pretext of a public health concern. As is often case, the blurry line of the truth lay somewhere between the social and political. Nonetheless the silver bullet was rang out in a 1961 judge's decision banning tattooing in the five boroughs, a law which remained on the books for the next 36 years. Of course tattooing never really left the city, it just went underground.
When Michael Wilson arrived in 1982, 21 years into the ban, New York was coming out of a period of riots, blackouts and bankruptcy, and entering the era of crack and the very worst of the AIDS years. These were also punk’s golden days, the beginning of rap music, and an unprecedented artistic revolution in painting, performance, graphic design, publishing, and fashion, each form of creative expression influencing and inspiring the other. People who wanted a life different than what a small town had to offer came here. Gay people came here to forge friendships, have sex, and professionally make and dictate popular culture to the masses. If one was brave enough to try, New York was a burned out shell of a city that offered anyone the chance to reinvent themselves.
Michael discusses in an interview with Charles Gatewood, photographic documentarian of underground and fringe society, that it was because tattooing was illegal in New York that the city became his destination. His goal was to find someone who would be willing to break the taboo of tattooing the face so he could become the person he had envisioned for himself since adolescence, The Illustrated Man, a legendary character from the old carnival sideshow in the modern world.
In 1985, after a decade of absence, traditional sideshow quietly returned to Coney Island. Cultural pressures in the 50’s and 60’s (the rise of political correctness making distasteful the presentation of human oddities for the purpose of entertainment) and economic pressures (the invention of the electric carnival ride yielding profit margins far exceeding the expense of putting on a live act) shut down the once hugely popular spectacles one after the other. In the mid-80s Sideshows by the Seashore founder Dick Zigun teamed up with old time showman John Bradshaw for one weekend of performances to enthusiastic sold out crowds. With his face now tattooed, Michael started working at the sideshow in 1987. Any news photographer reporting on Coney Island naturally wanted a picture of Michael and the media attention launched him into the limelight: a guest on daytime talk shows, appearances in music videos, designer fashion model, magazine cover-boy, and cultural icon.
Michael’s personality was a riddle of contradiction. If you weren’t expecting to run into someone looking like him at the grocery store in the late 80’s, his presence was if not frightening, then certainly a surprise. In fact he was the kindest and gentlest of people. He was the smartest person in the room and a highschool dropout. He presented himself publicly as a sexual maverick, flirting with everyone but never sleeping around. He lived in a very gay world but never seemed to be at peace with his bisexuality. Michael was also ill. As a young child he was diagnosed with insulin dependent brittle diabetes. Told the disease would kill him by his mid-20’s Michael chose to LIVE, daring to walk a path of his own design.
This film examines Michael’s personal and creative life, how his sexuality informed his visual art and how his alcoholism, conscious neglect of his diabetes, and attraction to hallucinogenic drugs informed the visions he had that became subject matter for his painting. We look at the ideas young artists from this era explored, taking controversial and outdated forms of traditional art and reimagining them for a postmodern audience, and what role Michael played in that movement. Today, just a few decades on, the influence of that effort is ubiquitous: tattooing is everywhere and on everyone and the modern freak show is once again celebrated in popular culture.
STEP RIGHT UP LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. YOU'LL SEE ALL TEN ACTS HERE INCLUDING THE ILLUSTRATED MAN WHO HAS MORE THAN 1,000 TATTOOS COVERING HIS ENTIRE BODY. He’s REAL, he’s ALIVE, and he’s on the INSIDE.